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More Valley communities are lifting COVID-19 restrictions as the state approves their plans for containing the deadly coronavirus.

Madera, Kings, Merced and Kern counties were all given a green light from the state Wednesday to immediately reopen dine-in restaurants, retail stores and other local businesses shuttered by the pandemic.

Two counties were approved for “Expanded Stage 2” reopenings Wednesday morning under California Department of Public Health pandemic guidelines. Kings and Kern counties were granted permission to widen business activity later in the day.

Fresno County submitted its reopening plan to the state health department on Tuesday and is waiting for review by the state.

“The county submitted documentation to the state on Tuesday, May 19th confirming the county’s ability to meet the readiness criteria set by the Governor and it was approved by the state this morning,” Madera County officials announced in a news release.

Restaurants, Malls and Outdoor Spaces Can Reopen

The news that Merced County has been approved for wider reopenings was welcomed by Supervisor Lloyd Pareira, though he said it should have come earlier.

“My dad always said, ‘Hindsight is 20/20’ and here we are in 2020, looking back I think we should have started reopening 4 or 5 weeks ago.” Pareira said in an email to GV Wire.

Still, he acknowledged that lifting shelter in place restrictions brings risks.

“We know that as we reopen our commerce the number of Covid-19 cases are going to increase, that’s why we are opening cautiously,” Pareira said. “We don’t want to overwhelm our system’s ability to care for our friends and neighbors who may get sick.”

In addition to dine-in restaurants and retailers, a number of other businesses and venues are allowed to reopen in approved counties with modification to their operations. They include shopping malls, office-based businesses, outdoor museums, gallery spaces, pet grooming facilities, and car washes.

“Higher risk” spaces such as in-person church services, hair and nail salons, bars, gyms and entertainment venues (including indoor movie theaters) are not included in the state’s Stage 2 approval. Public pools and playgrounds are also excluded.

“Through the efforts of Madera County residents and staff in the Emergency Operations Center we have been able to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Madera Public Health Officer Simon Paul. “As more businesses open up it is imperative that community members continue to practice social distancing and hygiene behaviors, and wear masks when they go out.”

Counties Have Low COVID-19 Case Counts

Madera and Merced counties have the lowest case counts within the seven-county region stretching from Kern to San Joaquin. Through Tuesday, Merced County had reported 222 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 135 recoveries and six deaths. Madera County has reported 81 cases, with 58 recoveries and two deaths.

The state health department has set a number of coronavirus containment requirements that counties must confirm they are meeting for approval to reopen their economies at a faster pace than harder-hit areas.

The requirements include stable or declining COVID-19 hospitalizations, a low incidence of new coronavirus cases based on recent test results, and sufficient resources to conduct contact tracing when new cases are identified.

This story has been updated.

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